-- Heather Wisner

The American Canon
Long Day's Journey Into Night. By Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Laird Williamson. Starring Pamela Payton-Wright, Josef Sommer, Marco Barricelli, and Ariel Shafir. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through May 2. Call 749-2228.

Suddenly Last Summer. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Neal Shorstein. Starring Anna Van der Heide, Colman Domingo, and Shannon McGrann. At the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through April 25. Call 289-2260.

From Royall Tyler's historic first American play in 1787 until Eugene O'Neill started writing in the early 1900s, we literally had no native drama, just a sorry tradition of melodrama and farce that's as obscure to most of us now as Tyler's name.

O'Neill's father made a small fortune acting in a long-running potboiler called The Count of Monte Cristo, and when the young playwright grew up he tried his damndest to write against that tradition. Instead of light, easy, love-affirming heroic plays he wrote long, torturous tragedies filled with conflicted and love-wrecked agonists. Long Day's Journey Into Night is one of those works, as well as a portrait of O'Neill's family, that milieu of actors and no-'counts he lived to redeem; it's also one of the best shows in the current ACT season.

Oh, I know what Steve Winn wrote about it. He said it was cautious and flat. But I thought the show's modesty made it strong. When ACT productions get ambitious someone always winds up spending too much money, and things start to twirl and whistle and shoot steam onstage, and the music gets loopy, and opening-night audiences applaud at the sheer ostentatious display of their donated dollars at work. But on Journey's opening night nobody clapped for the muted brown interior of the Tyrones' summer house, or their shabby-genteel furniture, or the scrimmed-in corners that showed us whether it was day or night in the yard. Kate Edmunds' set, like the rest of the performance, tried to be quietly effective.

O'Neill tells the whole sad history of the Tyrone family in one afternoon and night of oddly engaging conversation. We watch two loafing, atheistic sons bicker with their imperious Catholic father while their mother, Mary, tries to ignore the worst of the family's misery. Suspense for the audience comes in the form of wondering what's wrong with the younger son, Edmund (he has tuberculosis), and what Mary does upstairs (she shoots morphine).

The script focuses on Mary's slide from a bright and hopeful piano-playing girl into the ghost of a housewife we see onstage. "One day, long ago," she says, "I could no longer call my soul my own." In that sense she's what Nora might have been if she'd never walked away from home in Ibsen's play; and in that sense Long Day's Journey is religious.

Pamela Payton-Wright plays Mary like a torn, delicate piece of paper. Not until Mary comes down at the end, stoned on morphine, does Payton-Wright start hitting false and mannered notes -- reaching to imitate a dilapidated state of mind instead of actually inhabiting one. Up to that point she does a nerve-racking portrait of an American mother-in-denial. Her chemistry with Josef Sommer, who plays James Sr., feels affectionate and sharp, full of both neurosis and humor, while her long scene with the tart-mouthed scullery girl moves like a trance, backgrounded with the thrum of a foghorn played on what must be the lowest notes of an organ. When Edmund and James Sr. return from the doctor in that scene, an argument with Edmund climaxes in a hollered "NO!" that's like a magnified foghorn, full of vastation and dread.

Sommer brings a nicely shaded likableness to the failed, skinflint father O'Neill tried so hard to draw without rancor. He's a drunkard, a Shakespeare-quoting blowhard, and an intolerant old fart who doesn't trust books by Ibsen or Baudelaire, but he's also clever and self-aware enough to admit that the long-running play with which he made his money also cost him his enthusiasm -- what the old Catholic dares to call his "soul." His whiskey-drenched, nighttime conversation with Edmund about these things makes him sympathetic, even if that scene is too long.

Jamie, the belligerent older brother who drinks too much and loafs around, trying to conduct a second-rate stage career in his father's shadow, is played without as much likable dimension by Marco Barricelli. He's supposed to be sullen and defeated, but before he warms up it looks as if Barricelli himself would rather not be in the room. Soon enough he takes on Jamie's cynical growliness, though, and only improves after Jamie gets drunk -- roaring, whining, and staggering around like a sentimental bully. On opening night he kicked a half-full whiskey bottle off the stage into the front row.

Edmund is the tubercular younger brother who takes O'Neill's position in the family. He's hard to play, and Ariel Shafir does an uneven job in the role, sometimes seeming maudlin and overearnest, sometimes acting a little milky for a man who's been away at sea, but sometimes squeezing real lyricism from Edmund's poetic lines. By the point at which he has his long conversation with his father, Edmund has become a clear figure onstage, and Shafir delivers speeches about James Sr.'s stinginess as well as his own consumption with a passion that strains at (without ruining) the production's stately pace.

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